Archive for March, 2012

Irish immigrants killed building railroad reburied

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Duffy's Cut burial in West Laurel Hill CemeteryThe remains of five Irish immigrants who died in 1832 during the construction of a stretch of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad were reinterred in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania on Friday, March 9th. Seven bagpipers in kilts played during the procession and accompanied an Irish tenor as he sang the national anthems of the United States and Ireland. Members of the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Brigade, a Civil War re-enactment group, fired Civil War muskets in a salute to the departed. Their burial plot is marked by a 10-foot-high Celtic cross made of County Kilkenny limestone and sculpted by Johnny Rowe in Stradball. It was paid for by Immaculata University. The plot was donated by the cemetery.

Burial ceremony at West Laurel Hill CemeteryAround 500 people were present to pay their respects, among them Kevin Conmy, deputy chief of mission at the Irish embassy in Washington, D.C., and the two men responsible for discovering the bodies, Immaculata University history professor William Watson and his twin brother, Francis, a Lutheran minister.

The Watsons’ late grandfather, Joseph Tripican, was employed for many years as the assistant to Martin Clement, president of Pennsylvania Railroad during the 1940s. In 1909, the railroad assigned Clement to investigate a cholera outbreak that had devastated a shanty town of laborers working on Duffy’s Cut, a particularly gruesome section of rail 20 miles west of Philadelphia that required leveling a hill then filling the adjacent valley with the soil removed from the hilltop.

Duffy's Cut memorial crossIn 2002, the Watsons came across a file of documents about the 1909 investigation that their grandfather had taken home with him after the company went bankrupt in 1970. The file included press articles from 1832 which claimed that there was cholera at the railroad workers’ encampment, but only eight or nine fatalities. Clement’s investigation, on the other hand, put the number of dead at 57. Newspapers were usually very punctilious recording cholera deaths to help contain epidemics. The Watsons smelled coverup and though neither of them are archaeologists and only one of them is a professional historian, they decided to look for the bodies of these nameless, faceless workers who had died unmourned. They applied for grants and were soundly rejected, so they gathered volunteers and permits and paid their own way. Thus began the Duffy’s Cut Project.

Duffy’s Cut was named after Philip Duffy, the Irishman contracted by the railroad in 1831 to make the cut. He had done this sort of project before, and he liked to go back to Ireland to enlist, as an 1829 newspaper story quoted him, “a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin” to do the backbreaking labor of moving tons of clay, stones, shale, and soil from the top of a hill to the bottom of a valley. We don’t know if he went directly to Ireland to recruit for the Duffy’s Cut contract or if he hired newly arrived Irish workers, but the passenger manifest of the barque John Stamp which departed from Londonderry, Ireland en route to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 23, 1832 lists one passenger, 18-year-old John Ruddy of Donegal, who almost certainly was among Duffy’s crew. He and 15 other laborers on that manifest never show up in later census records.

The workers lived in a hastily erected shanty town at Sugartown and King Roads in Chester County. Conditions were miserable and unsanitary, and cholera was winding its way through the Pennsylvania countryside. Just weeks after work began, people started to get sick. Instead of getting the medical care they asked for, the workers were quarantined in the valley. Some of them tried to escape the camp and seek help from neighboring houses, but they were rebuffed. By November, they were all dead.

Fire rakes unearthed at Duffy's CutIn August of 2004, the Watsons got permission from local property owners and the state to excavate along Duffy’s Cut. It was a needle in a haystack expedition on which they made little headway in the beginning. The next year railroad historian John Hankey helped them pinpoint the likely spot of the tent city. He was right — burned ground and a number of artifacts like pipes, fire rakes, construction tools and eating implements were found — but it wasn’t until March of 2009 after University of Pennsylvania geologist Tim Bechtel searched the embankment with ground-penetrating radar that they found their first human remains, the shin bone of an 18-year-old male.

Skull unearthed from Duffy's CutOver the next year, they unearthed the remains of five more people (some accounts, including my own, say six, but I now think that’s a mistake), four men and one woman. Osteological analysis suggests the woman was a laundress. Her neck vertebrae are worn from years of leaning over. All of the remains show signs of violence. The woman’s skull has puncture wounds on top, one of the other skulls has a bullet hole, and the others have wounds that were inflicted by a heavy sharp instrument like an axe or a pick.

What they suspect happened is that the violence was inflicted on people trying to get away. It could have had an anti-Irish, anti-immigrant flavor, or could have been a panic reaction to the prospect of cholera spreading. It could have been all business. The railroad had private security policing the area, and the men of the East Whiteland Horse Company were basically vigilantes used to beating up horse thieves. Anybody trying to break quarantine would have been tracked down by East Whiteland Horse Company thugs and killed, then the bodies returned to the encampment to teach any would-be escapees a lesson.

Bones from Duffy's CutThe afflicted were being tended by nuns from the Sisters of Charity and one local blacksmith who was in charge of corpse disposal. The blacksmith buried the first bodies in individual coffins but gave up on that once cholera started to claim more than he could keep up with. That’s why the Watsons found a small number of remains in one location, while the cholera victims were buried in a mass grave 30 feet below a memorial monument to the unnamed rail workers who built our country erected on the spot in 1870. Once the bodies were buried, the blacksmith burned the encampment to the ground.

Pipes from Duffy's CutOnly one of the sets of remains provided a clue to the identity of the deceased. Forensic dentist Dr. Matt Patterson found a rare genetic anomaly in the teeth of the 18-year-old male who was the first body discovered: the youth never developed an upper right first molar. As it happens, a number of people named Ruddy in Ireland today also never developed their upper right first molars. Some of them even know of a family legend about a young Ruddy moving to the US in the 1830s to work on the railroad who was never heard from again.

One William Ruddy of Donegal flew to Pennsylvania when he read the story in the Irish press. He has no upper right first molar. Two of his aunts have no upper right first molar. He gave a DNA sample to compare against the remains. The analysis has not been completed yet, but assuming it turns out to be a match — which everyone involved is sure it will — the remains of John Ruddy will be returned to Ireland for burial in the family plot.

Unfortunately the project ends here. The brothers would like to excavate the probable location of the mass grave, but Amtrak owns the property and they will not give the Watson brothers permission to excavate because the location is too close to the active train tracks.

For footage of the burial and some lovely piping, see this local news story:

Keep your eyes open for an upcoming documentary on the Duffy’s Cut tragedy, Death on the Railroad, coming in June 2012.


Year 1 prototype shekel sells for $1.1 million

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

A silver shekel minted in the immediate wake of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the summer of 66 A.D. sold at auction Thursday, March 8th, for a record-breaking $1,105,375, including buyer’s premium. As far as we know, it’s the most expensive ancient Judean coin ever sold.

Tyre shekel, with Melqart on the obverseThe reason it’s so valuable is that it’s a prototype. It was minted just a few weeks after the revolt broke out. In Jerusalem, the rebels defeated the Roman garrison and expelled their pro-Roman king Agrippa II (son of that Herod Agrippa who was raised at Tiberius’ imperial court along with the emperor’s son Drusus and the future emperor Claudius), claiming the Temple and its rich stores of Tyre silver shekels.

Tyre shekel, reverseWhen Rome conquered Judea in the first century B.C., they disallowed the minting of local currency. By Talmudic law the Temple tax had to be paid in coins of high purity silver, and the shekels of Tyre were the only ones that qualified. They left a lot to be desired in other religious respects, though. Tyre shekels had the head of Melqart, the god of Tyre, aka Baal, aka Heracles, on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse and were inscribed with the legend “Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable,” thus making mincemeat of the First Commandment prohibition against graven images of animals and deities.

(Since observant Jews would not carry coins bearing graven images and inscriptions calling Phoenician cities holy, and since the Temple would only accept Tyre shekels, a thriving market of money changers grew up in the Temple courtyards. Devout Jews would purchase Tyre shekels with non-blasphemous currency and pay their Temple tax with the purer silver. Those money changers charged exorbitant rates for this service, and according to the gospel of Matthew, it’s their tables an enraged Jesus overturned for making his Temple into a den of thieves.)

Year 1 prototype silver shekel, reverse, 66 A.D.As soon as the Jews had control of Jerusalem, they started striking silver coins of their own using the Tyre shekels as raw material. Doubtless they had practical reasons — revolts cost money and so do Temple taxes — but they were also political and religious statements. By minting their own coins they declared themselves independent and sovereign, no longer required to obey Roman laws in contravention of their own religious strictures.

Year 1 prototype silver shekel, obverse, 66 A.D.The new shekels were dated from the start of the revolt, so the ones minted in 66 A.D. are inscribed “Year 1.” Moneyers struck a few prototypes first to figure out the design and mechanics of minting large silver coins. Two of those prototypes are known to exist, both struck from the same dies. They were discovered in the late 1970s. One of coins was donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The other just sold to an anonymous overseas collector for $1.1 million.

On the reverse of the coin is a ritual chalice encircled by dots and topped with the Paleo-Hebrew inscriptions “Shekel of Israel” and “Year 1.” On the obverse is a staff with three budding pomegranates, symbols of the fertility of the promised land, encircled by dots and the inscription “Jerusalem the Holy” (in yo face, Tyre!). Each side has an outer border of dots.

You can tell these are prototypes because the images and inscriptions are more complex and off-center than the rest of the Year 1 issue. The reverse of both prototype coins is off-center to the left. There are borders of dots around the inner imagery as well as the outer border of dots. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet used is more elaborate. Later Year 1 issues are simplified and centered, with only an outer border of dots and with a less intricate lettering.

This shekel is just one of almost 2000 stunning and rare pieces from the Shoshana Collection of ancient Judean coins. The auction last week was only the first part of the sale of this landmark collection which was put together over the course of 40 years by an anonymous West coast collector. The catalogue is a history of ancient Israel in brief and very much worth perusing.

Gold aureus of Titus, obverse, 70 A.D.Gold aureus of Titus, reverse inscribed "IUDEA DEVICTA", 70 A.D.Here’s a video that describes some of the featured pieces, including the Year 1 prototype shekel and this incredible gold aureus of Titus which was minted around 70 A.D. before or during the siege of Jerusalem but still features on the reverse side a Victory hanging a shield inscribed “IMP T CAES” (Imperator Titus Caesar) on a Judean date palm. Along the edges the coin is inscribed IVDAEA DEVICTA or “Judaea is Conquered.” Titus was nothing if not confident. The aureus sold for $956,000.



Bog head hospitalized for CT scan

Friday, March 9th, 2012

CT scan of Worsley Man; the blue staples put the skull back together after the coroner's examination in 1958In August of 1958, peat cutters working a bog in Worsley Moss, Lancashire discovered the well-preserved head of a man. They reported it to the police, thinking that it was a recent death, possibly by violent crime. The police investigated the find spot, excavating extensively looking for additional body parts, but none were ever found. X-rays and chemical analysis suggested that the head was at least a hundred years old, so the Coroner returned an open verdict at the inquest and the Worsley head was put into storage at the Manchester Medical School pathology laboratory.

In August of 1984, another peat digger found a leg with a foot attached just 12 miles away at Lindow Moss. This time Rick Turner, county archaeologist for Cheshire, was alerted as well as the police and the next day Turner discovered the rest of the tanned body that would become known as Lindow Man. Lindow Man was the first ancient bog body knowingly discovered in Britain — such finds had been reported for hundreds of years in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark — so he became an instant celebrity.

In the wake of the interest generated by Lindow Man, Worsley Man’s head suddenly took on a whole new significance. In 1987, Manchester Museum archaeologists tracked down the head to give it a thorough forensic examination. They found a severe skull fracture, a wound behind the right ear, and the remains of a cord embedded into the flesh of his right cheek. There was also a cut at the second cervical vertebra where his head was cut off with a sharp implement. Worsley Man was between 20 to 30 years old when he died. Radiocarbon dating places his death at around 120 A.D.

Lindow Man at the British MuseumLindow Man had similar “overkill” injuries: he was bludgeoned three times on the head, the remains of an animal sinew cord were found around his neck coupled with ligature marks and two broken vertebrae, and there is a cut above the ligature spot deep enough and perfectly positioned to sever the jugular vein. Archaeologists theorize that these injuries, any one of which could be fatal, were inflicted in a ritualistic manner, as a sacrifice to gods or punishment of social outcasts.

It’s not a universally accepted explanation, however. Some archaeologists think the injuries could have been inflicted during the course of a robbery. Pathologist Robert Connolly, who worked with the police when Lindow Man was first discovered and they were investigating the possibility that he was a contemporary crime victim, called the wounds evidence of “the brutal clubbing of a man wearing a necklace.”

Worsley Man gets CT scan at Manchester Children's HospitalIn 2011, a team of archaeologists decided to restudy Worsley Man’s skull using the latest and greatest technology. The radiology department of the newly built Manchester Children’s Hospital ran thorough CT scans on it.

They confirmed that Worsley Man was definitely not a man wearing a necklace. There are deep wounds on his neck almost certainly caused by ligature. They’ve also confirmed that he was decapitated by a cutting instrument at the time of death, so he didn’t lose his head via peat cutter.


The body in York Minster’s undercroft

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Archaeologists working on the undercroft of York Minster, the 13th century Gothic cathedral that is the largest medieval cathedral north of the Alps, have found human remains that in all likelihood predate the current building. The site has had a church on it since at least the 7th century A.D., but fires, Danes and Normans damaged and destroyed the previous structures. The current iteration took 250 years to build starting in 1220. Since this burial was entirely undisturbed, archaeologists think it took place before the Gothic minster was built around it.

The Very Reverend Keith Jones, Dean of York, said: “York Minster’s walls have been witness to centuries of human life and I feel sure that archaeologists are likely to encounter even more human burials during their three-week tenure: we would expect to find, when working at York Minster, evidence of previous life all around the place.

“Having found the remains of our forebears, they will be reverently cared for until such time as they can be reinterred with the walls of York Minster.”

The bones might even date to the 12th century when the Norman cathedral was still standing. The undercroft, the vaulted cellar below ground level, has archaeological remains covering all of York’s history, from the Roman fort to the Norman foundations. There’s an exhibit of artifacts on display in the undercroft normally, including a luscious Norman-era 12th century relief of sinners being tortured by demons in Hell’s cauldron felicitously known as the Doomstone, but the undercroft was closed to the public as of January this year and will remain so until March 2013. Visitors are allowed to view the archaeologists at work, though.

The closure is part of an ambitious £10.5 million renovation program called York Minster Revealed which, among other priorities, will install wheelchair accessible lifts and ramps in front of and inside the church. For the first time in 40 years, archaeologists were allowed to excavate inside the building in order to prepare for the lift installation. The last time archaeologists got to poke around inside was 1972 when severe structural problems threatened the central tower with collapse. That was when they found the Roman and Norman remains in the undercroft.

York MinsterIn addition to the updating of the amenities for visitors to the church, York Minster Revealed also focuses on developing the rare and precious ancient crafts of stonemasonry and stained glass conservation. York Minster’s Great East Window is one of the world’s largest medieval stained glass windows, and both the masonry in which it’s embedded (it’s buckling) and the glass (darkened by dirt and soot) are in dire need of conservation.

York Minster is one of the few remaining churches to have its own in-house stone yard where craftsmen learn to carve stone using the same techniques and materials their 13th century forebears used. Visitors to the cathedral will be able to attend workshops where they will see the stone masons and glaziers at work and have the opportunity to talk to the craftsmen about the restoration.

York Minster stones for auctionAll of the masonry is in regular need of replacement, so much so that the minster holds an annual stone auction where stonework that has been removed and replaced with a modern copy is sold to the general public and the profits used to fund further restorations. Prices start at about £30 a block which is a steal for moss-covered, carved 800-year-old limestone. The minster keeps archaeologically significant pieces, of course.


Doorjamb found that proves fictional pharaoh existed

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Pharaoh Senakht-en-Re carved on limestone lintelIn February of this year, a team of archaeologists from France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) discovered the limestone lintel and door jamb of a 17th Dynasty (ca. 1634 – 1543 B.C.) administrative structure in Luxor’s Karnak temple complex. Hieroglyphics engraved on the doorway marked it as dedicated to the deity Amun-Re. They also contain the cartouche of the pharaoh who ordered the construction: Senakht-en-Re.

Accompanying his name are the three main titles given Egyptian pharaohs — Horus, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Son of Ra — which leave no doubt that the Senakht-en-Re name belongs to a king. The cartouche and titles, carved during his lifetime, prove that he existed and rewrites the chronology of the period.

Little is known about the 17th Dynasty. At the time Egypt was fragmented, with Hyksos kingdoms in the north and center of the country and native Theban pharaohs in Upper Egypt. We don’t even have a definitive list of every king who ruled during the period. Senakht-en-Re’s cartouche is a particularly notable discovery because it’s the first time a contemporary artifact bearing his name has ever been discovered.

He is mentioned in documentary evidence. Scribes writing during the 18th and 19th Dynasties, two centuries after his reign, describe Senakht-en-Re as the ancestor of the New Kingdom pharaohs who kicked out the Hyksos and presided over Egypt’s golden age of prosperity and military success. Egyptologists didn’t put much stock in the accuracy of these statements since they were written long after Senakht-en-Re’s supposed reign and since they served as dynastic propaganda, a way to connect the current rulers with past ones.

The name alone is a major discovery, but the rest of the engraving also provides an interesting glimpse into 17th Dynasty trade. The hieroglyphics say the pharaoh had the door built from limestone blocks quarried at ancient Tora, south of Cairo. Tora was a Hyksos territory at that time, so Senakht-en-Re, a Theban king, was doing business with the Hyksos.

The CNRS team intends to continue excavations in the area. They’ve been digging in the temple of Ptah area, on the north side of the temple of Amun-Re, since 2008. The ultimate aim is restoration for public viewing, but meanwhile they’ve been doing routine study to enhance our understanding of the epigraphic, architectural and archaeological record of the area. They discovered massive mud brick walls — evidence of earlier temples built on the site — and a few ceramic specimens from the late 17th, early 18th Dynasty.

Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim has asked the team to keep excavating the doorway area in the hope that more 17th Dynasty remains will be found to illuminate the history of the period.


Original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters on AR

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Scan of original 1939 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posterA unique cache of approximately 15 original “Keep Calm and Carry On” World War II propaganda posters were brought in for appraisal to an Antiques Roadshow event at St. Andrews University in Scotland. This is the only known collection of the original 1939 poster whose iconography has become ubiquitous over the past few years both in its original form and in countless parodies.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” was one of three posters designed and printed to rally the population of Britain for war before war was even declared. There wasn’t even a Ministry of Information, in fact, when the posters were first conceived, because the department responsible for propaganda and censorship had been closed at the end of World War I. Reestablishing an MOI would be tantamount to a government announcement that they expected to go to war again, so the organization was developed in secret in the late 1930s and only officially formed on September 4th, 1939, four days after the German invasion of Poland, one day after Britain declared war on Germany.

Original 1939 'Your courage' posterMeanwhile, the Home Planning Committee was tasked in April of 1939 with devising poster designs that would be simple, striking and difficult for the already well-developed German propaganda machine to duplicate. They settled on three slogans printed in fine type against a single bold color backdrop topped with the only image in the series, the crown of King George VI. The first slogan printed was “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory,” the second “Freedom Is in Peril Defend It with All Your Might,” and the third “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The idea was to convey a message of encouragement from the King himself, a rallying cry to inspire people through the initial shocks and horrors of war on the home front.

Production on all three began in August of 1939. War was seen as inevitable by then, and the nascent Ministry wanted to have posters printed and ready for wide distribution when the other shoe dropped. A million “Your Courage” posters, 600,000 “Freedom Is in Peril” posters and 2.5 million “Keep Calm” posters were printed, but only the first two were ever distributed and posted everywhere from shop windows to outdoor advertising billboards. “Keep Calm” was kept in reserve for a top potential panic-inducing event like a German invasion of Britain. The worst case scenario didn’t happen, so “Keep Calm” never actually made it to the streets.

Original 'Keep Calm' poster at Barter BooksAfter the war, paper shortages claimed much of the poster stock. Millions of “Keep Calm” posters were pulped, and since they’d never been seen in public, nobody even felt the loss. In 2000 Stuart Manley, co-owner of Barter Books, a magically delicious bookstore set in a restored Victorian train station in Alnwick, Northumberland, was going through a box of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore he’d purchased at auction when he found a folded poster in the bottom. White text on a red background told him to “Keep Calm and Carry On” and naturally he showed it to his wife Mary. She loved its stiff-upper-lip stoutness and the simple but compelling graphic impact, so she had it framed and put it up near the store’s cash register.

It caused a sensation. Since the design is over 50 years old, it’s in the public domain now. The Manleys made copies to sell in the store and soon they couldn’t keep them in stock. Then the Internets got a hold of it and a meme ensued. Now you can find “Keep Calm and Carry On” and its bastard children on beach towels, coffee mugs and t-shirts everywhere, but the originals remain rarer than hens’ teeth.

Moragh Turnbull and Paul Atterbury with posters at Antiques RoadshowMoragh Turnbull had seen the design crop up on commercial clutter and knew she had some of those posters. Her father, William Turnbull, was a member of the Royal Observer Corps in Edinburgh. The War Office sent the ROC propaganda posters as part of their distribution network, but as we know, the “Keep Calm” posters never got the green light. Turnbull simply rolled up 15 or so posters, slid a rubber band over them slid them into a tube (thank you for the correction, Moragh!) and kept them at home along with his town planning papers. He later gave the posters to his daughter Moragh.

She brought them to the Antiques Roadshow at St. Andrews where expert Paul Atterbury confirmed their authenticity and valued them at £1000 (ca. $1500) each. He told Moragh:

“This is the original and now you’re probably sitting on the world’s stock of original “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. You have the monopoly.”

She intends to keep her monopoly for now. Since she recently lost her job, she finds the slogan comforting. In a few years she may decide to sell them to make herself a tidy little pension fund.

For more about the history of the three posters, read this fascinating extract from Rebecca Lewis’ Ph.D. dissertation on British World War II propaganda posters. Here’s a short video covering the history of the posters and, most delightfully, the beautiful restored train station bookstore.



Newly unveiled Scottish fossils fill Romer’s Gap

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Amphibian tooth fossil, early CarboniferousSomething happened 360 million years ago during the end of the Devonian period. A mass extinction event devastated marine and terrestrial life thoroughly enough that very few fossils have been found dating to between 360 and 345 million years ago. The end of the Devonian and the first 15 million years of the Carboniferous period leave a gap in the fossil record known as Romer’s Gap, after paleontologist Dr. Alfred Romer who first identified it.

A number of theories have been proffered to explain the gap: a drop in oxygen levels caused by high volcanic activity that made it hard to sustain life on land, geological conditions inimical to fossil creation, or a simple failure to dig in the right place. That last theory has at least in part been borne out by the discovery of hundreds of newly unveiled early Carboniferous fossils in Scotland.

Amphibian fossil dubbed 'Ribbo'Paleontologists have found an impressive variety of fossils from several newly explored sites east of Edinburgh, including the banks of the Whiteadder and Tweed rivers. Fossils include amphibians — including one vertebrate named “Ribbo” for his well-defined ribs — plants, fish and invertebrates.

The Scottish discoveries are four-legged life forms, some of the first to walk the land, and demonstrate that having five fingers and toes arose about 20 million years earlier than paleontologists had theorized.

“Everything is getting pulled back in the fossil record,” said Jennifer Clack, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and study author. “This gives us a clue to how quickly that the ability to walk on land with a conventional foot evolved — much faster than previously thought.” […]

The new information suggests that life recovered from a known mass extinction event at the end of the Devonian period, which was about 359 million to 416 million years ago, more quickly than researchers had once thought. Fish groups evolved into big freshwater forms including lungfishes, which can breathe air, and rhizodonts, which are now extinct. By 345.3 million years ago, animals that are usually considered to be land-dwellers had appeared.

Fossilized fernResearchers also found charcoal deposits along with the fossils. They’re hoping to be able to identify the plants that were partially burned long enough to turn to charcoal, and thus to get a better idea of the environment they lived in.

Sir David Attenborough is psyched that new sites of great paleontological significance have been found in Scotland at all, given how thoroughly it’s been picked over. He said: “One is accustomed these days to hear of sensational new fossil finds being made in (other) parts of the world. But to learn of a site in this country, which must surely be counted among the most extensively explored, in geological terms, is wonderful and exciting.”

A collection of Romer’s Gap fossils will be on display at the National Museum of Scotland from Tuesday, March 6th until April 29th.


T. rex’s bite was strongest of all land animals

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Tyrannosaurus rex poised to biteScientists from the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester have published a new study in the journal Biology Letters estimating that the bite force of Tyrannosaurus rex ranged between 35,000 and 57,000 newtons, or 7,868 and 12,814 pounds of pressure. That’s the equivalent of a medium-sized elephant sitting on you and it’s the strongest bite of any land animal to ever tread our green earth. It’s also almost 20 times more powerful than previous estimates of T. rex’s bite.

Using laser scanners, researchers digitized the full-scale copy of the skull of an adult T. rex that was on display at Manchester Museum. The resulting 3D model of the T. rex skull was the basis for the bite model. Since muscles and joints don’t fossilize, scientists used computer modeling to reconstruct the muscular and joint structure of the T. rex’s jaw. They based the reconstruction on the muscular structures of modern crocodiles and birds, both of whom share a common ancestor with dinosaurs.

They then mapped the muscles and joints onto the skull model and made the muscles contract to their fullest extent, like the T. rex was snapping its jaws shut. The researchers measured the force when the model’s teeth hit each other. The strongest bite force was at the back of the teeth — between 30,000 and 60,000 Newtons — just as with humans who can bite harder with their molars than with their front teeth.

When they used their methodology to calculate the bite force of living animals, their results were within 5 to 20% of the actual range. They included that accuracy range in their calculation of the T. rex biting force.

Multi-body dynamic analysis of T-rex bite

(a) Multi-body dynamic analysis (MDA) 3D digitized T. rex skull with reconstructed soft tissues (red, adductor mandibulae externus group; blue, adductor mandibulae posterior group; purple, pterygoideus group). (b) MDA model with joints (green), muscles (red cylinders), and ‘contact’ springs (blue spheres and cylinder) in starting bite pose. (c) MDA model during sustained biting.

Using this model, the researchers found a surprising difference between young T. rex and mature ones: the power of the bite increased disproportionately with maturity. It’s not a linear increase in bite force based solely on the size differential between adults and youths. This might mean that an adult T. rex had a significantly different diet and fighting style than it did when it was growing up.

Earlier studies calculated T. rex’s maximum bite force at a modest 8,000-13,000 Newtons. According to University of Liverpool’s Dr. Karl Bates, those studies were kneecapped because they extrapolated data from much smaller animals — none larger than 450 pounds, while the T. rex was 15,000 pounds — or because they were calculated from fossilized T. rex bite marks and there’s no way of knowing how hard the animal was biting when it left the mark that would turn to stone.

They weren’t the strongest biters ever. In all likelihood, that honor goes to Megalodon, the prehistoric shark which certainly has the jaws for it. We have even less to go on with Megalodon than we do with T. rex, because the only fossilized remains we have of the ancient shark are its teeth. We don’t even have its jaw bones. The study that estimated its biting power at 24,000 to 40,000 pounds used computer models of a great white shark’s jaws and then multiplied the results by Megalodon’s size and weight. However, Megalodon was not just a much larger great white — it’s not even a direct ancestor — so there’s no reason to assume its bite was similar enough to be able to extrapolate force from one animal to the other.


Patron saint of Dublin’s heart stolen

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

St. Laurence's heart in a wooden box in an iron-barred containerThe heart of St. Laurence O’Toole, patron saint of Dublin, was stolen from Christ Church Cathedral sometime between midnight and 12:30 PM Saturday. The heart of the 12th century saint was kept in a heart-shaped wooden box which was held inside a container made of iron bars and hung by a chain on display in Saint Lauds Chapel. The thief or thieves used bolt cutters to break off then bend back the bars on the front side of the box, then reached in and took the wooden box.

The iron-barred container after the theftGardaí (Irish police officers) are investigating. They’ve checked CCTV footage of everyone who entered the cathedral between the time it opened at 9:30 AM and when the theft was discovered at 12:30 PM. There were about 40 visitors during that period, and none of them are filmed walking out with a heart-shaped box. There are no signs of a break-in, so it’s possible the thief hid in the church before it was closed for the night only to emerge, steal the heart, and sneak away unseen. A staffer saw a lit candle in the church when he arrived to open the cathedral doors in the morning, perhaps lit by the thief for the expiation of at least one major sin.

The dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Rev Dermot Dunne, said he was “devastated” by the theft. “It is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father,” he said. A church spokeswoman added: “It’s completely bizarre. They didn’t touch anything else. They specifically targeted this. They wanted the heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole.”

There were objects of easily convertible monetary value — like gold chalices and candlesticks — in that chapel that the thieves left untouched.

St. Laurence in stained glass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, WexfordSt. Laurence O’Toole was born Lorcán Ua Tuathail, the son of a local chieftain, in Kildare County, Ireland in 1128. As a boy, Laurence had been kept as a hostage by his father’s liege lord and former enemy. By the time his captivity — which included a spell spent in solitary confinement in a herdsman’s hut — was over, he knew he wanted to be a monk. Despite his ascetic hermit inclinations, he was an extremely successful monk, becoming abbot of a monastery in Glendalough at the age of 25. Just seven years later in 1162 he was made archbishop of Dublin, the first native Irishman to wear that cap.

After the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1170, St. Laurence helped negotiate peace terms between Henry II of England and Irish king Rory O’Connor. Henry was concerned that the Norman knights would carve themselves out fiefdoms on Ireland that would put them beyond his control. The 1175 Treaty of Windsor confirmed Rory O’Connor as High King of Ireland but as a vassal of King Henry II. The rest of the Irish chieftains and kinglings were to keep their territories and titles as long as they acknowledged Henry as their suzerain and paid him tribute via Rory O’Connor. Laurence O’Toole was one of the treaty’s witnesses.

His relationship with Henry deteriorated, however, after St. Laurence went to Rome for the Third Lateran Council in 1179. Henry made Laurence swear that he would uphold Henry’s rights in Ireland at the council, but Laurence saw to it that the Dublin diocese was put under the direct protection of Pope Alexander III. In the Treaty of Windsor, the Irish Church had been structured as subordinate to Canterbury. Henry II very famously was not fond of clerics asserting their rights at the expense of the crown.

In 1180, Rory O’Connor sent St. Laurence to negotiate tribute with Henry II. Henry was in no mood to parlay with Laurence and kept him waiting in England for weeks, refusing to see him. When Henry left for Normandy, Laurence followed him. Sick and exhausted from the voyage, St. Laurence got as far the Abbey of St. Victor at Eu, Normandy before he could go no further. He died at Eu on November 14, 1180.

It was the monks at Eu who documented his life, preserved his mortal remains and kept a record of all the miracles that happened at his tomb. Thanks to that documentation, Pope Honorius III canonized Laurence in 1225, just 45 years after his death. At some point in the next 55 years, his heart was moved to Christ Church Cathedral. The cathedral has been a major pilgrimage site ever since.


German Prince to sell historic ‘Beau Sancy’ diamond

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

The Beau Sancy diamondGeorg Friedrich Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia, head of the Imperial House of Hohenzollern and great-great-grandson of Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser of Germany, is selling a diamond that has been part of the crown jewels of France, Holland, England, Prussia and the German Empire. Known as the “Beau Sancy,” the 35-carat modified pear double rose cut diamond is thought to have been mined near the south-central Indian city of Golconda, the same mines that produced the Hope Diamond.

It was purchased in 1570 in Constantinople by diplomat, financier and famed jewel expert Nicolas de Harlay, Lord of Sancy. Harlay also owned a 55.23-carat shield-shaped yellow diamond called the “Sancy” so the smaller, whiter gem came to be called the “Beau Sancy” or “Little Sancy” to distinguish it from its cousin. An avid monarchist, Harlay sold high-end gems to raise money for King Henry III of France’s wars. He loaned both Henry III and Henry IV the “Sancy” diamond. The former king borrowed it to wear on the cap he used to cover his baldness; the latter used it as collateral to finance yet another war.

Harlay owned both spectacular stones for decades, entering into years of negotiations with potential buyers like the Duke of Mantua which went nowhere. He finally sold the “Sancy” to King James I of England around 1604. Legend has it that when Marie de’ Medici, wife of King Henry IV of France, found out that the biggest Sancy stone was now in the clutches of the English monarchy, she was so furious that Henry bought the “Beau Sancy” to appease her. He gave it to her as a gift.

Marie de' Medici coronation portrait, by Frans Pourbus the Younger, 1610Marie had it set at the top of the crown she wore at her coronation on May 13, 1610. There’s a formal portrait of Marie in full coronation regalia by Frans Pourbus the Younger in the Louvre which depicts the “Beau Sancy” at the apex of her crown. Unfortunately for Marie, on May 14, 1610, her husband was assassinated. Marie was made regent for her eight-year-old son, Louis XIII, and was by all accounts awful at it. Louis had to claim his own throne by force in 1617 and exile his mom to French hinterlands.

She kept intriguing against Louis’ rule and against his puppet master/advisor Cardinal Richelieu in various countries for the next 25 years. In 1641 she was in Amsterdam and deep in debt. To pay off some of her creditors, Marie de’ Medici sold the “Beau Sancy” to Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange-Nassau, for a staggering 80,000 florins, the single largest expenditure in the state budget for that year.

Prince Frederick Henry’s grandson William III of Orange inherited the stone. He gave it to his wife Mary as a wedding gift. After Catholic King James II of England was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the couple ascended the throne of England as King William III and Queen Mary II. They brought the “Beau Sancy” with them to England, and James II took the “Sancy” with him when he fled to France. Broke and dependent on his cousin King Louis XIV, James II sold the “Sancy” to Richelieu’s protégé Cardinal Mazarin who in turn left it to the Sun King in his will. The “Sancy” disappeared during the French Revolution but reappeared on the market in 1828, going through various hands until it was sold to the Louvre in 1978 by William Waldorf Astor, 4th Viscount Astor.

Meanwhile, William and Mary died childless, so after their deaths the “Beau Sancy” went to another grandson of Prince Frederick Henry’s, Frederick III, Elector Prince of Brandenburg and as of 1701, King Frederick I of Prussia. The diamond was considered the most important stone in the crown jewels and was worn by every royal bride until the dissolution of the monarchy after World War I. When Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated as German Emperor and King of Prussia and fled to the Netherlands in November 1918, the diamond stayed in Berlin.

It was kept in a sealed crypt for safekeeping during World War II. British troops discovered the stone after the war and returned it to the House of Hohenzollern where it has remained ever since. On May 14, “Beau Sancy” will be put on the auction block at the Sotheby’s Geneva Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale.

The diamond will tour the world before then, stopping at Sotheby’s showrooms in Hong Kong, New York, Rome, Paris, London and Zurich before arriving at its destination in Geneva. “Beau Sancy” has only been on public display four times over the past 50 years, so it’s a rare opportunity. Who knows where it will end up after it’s sold. Philipp Herzog von Württemberg, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, expressed a hope that the French government would buy the stone so the two historic Sancy diamonds could be together again at the Louvre, but I suspect that’s a pipe dream. The pre-sale estimate is $2 million – $4 million. I suspect those numbers are a pipe dream too.






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